Science in Christian Perspective



Anthropology, Theology, and Human Origins

James Hurd
367 Reynolds Ave.
  Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 16823

From: JASA 33 (December 1981): 239-241.

The aim of this article is to briefly sketch the views of anthropology and conservative Christian theology regarding human origins, and then suggest a "liberal" and a "conservative" view, each view taking into consideration the theologian's demands for biblical authority, and also trying to be faithful to firmly established scientific evidence.

A modern example of a conservative Christian position on human origins is that of the Creation Research Institute of San Diego, the research division of Heritage College. The Institute's activities include debating evolutionists on college campuses, and reviewing textbooks for their suitability for use in public schools. In another instance, Sen. Robert Mitchler has submitted a bill to the Illinois State Legislature that would require public schools to teach creationism, side by side with the evolutionary theory they now teach. "The theory in the bill is ... in support of an absolutely literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis" (Moody Monthly, May 1980:%), including a 12,000 year-old earth, and the theory that all animals were created fully developed, and humans did not evolve from lower forms. President Reagan has also gone on record as favoring creationism as opposed to evolutionism, and reportedly supported an unsuccessful suit in 1972 brought by the California State Board of Education to bring the teaching of Creationism into the public schools (Science, 1980).

There has been a reaction to all this activity. R.D. Alexander, an evolutionary biologist, who calls the efforts to mandate the teaching of creation in the public schools in Michigan "a step towards totalitarianism", summarizes the evolutionary and creationist arguments, and argues that we should not make the teaching of any theory mandatory in the public schools (Alexander, 1978).

The Position of Anthropology

There is no one anthropological theory of human origins. Anthropologists differ as to the period, location, and circumstances surrounding the first appearance of Homo sapiens on earth. However, almost all anthropologists agree that the best explanation for the unity and diversity they have observed among all life forms that have existed in the present and the past is the theory of biological evolution.

Evolution, in its simplest definition, means "descent with modification." Evolution occurs when the frequency of genetically related traits in a species changes in successive generations. The mechanism that makes these changes systematic and cumulative is natural selection, the cornerstone of evolutionary theory. The best illustration of natural selection is artifical selection, where humans breed plants or animals to produce certain desired traits. In the process of natural selection, it is not human intervention, but Darwin's "hostile forces of nature" that force the selection of traits that allow some individuals to produce a greater number of offspring in a given environment than do others.

Evidence for human evolution. There are two main lines of evidence supporting the idea of human evolution.

The first is the similarity between Homo sapiens and other primates. The species of the order Primate (prosimians, monkeys, apes, and humans) are most closely related to humans genetically, anatomically, and behaviorally. No anthropologist believes humans descended from present-day species of monkeys or apes. Almost all anthropologists believe that humans and other primates share a common ancestor. Clark (1959) makes a careful, but not exhaustive, comparison between the physical makeup of humans and other primates, pointing out how only small, successive changes would have been necessary to produce the physical dif ferences we observe in various species of primates today in the hand, foot, spinal column, pelvis, leg, arm, skull, and dental struc tures. Analogous structures of each species can be seen as a "varia tion on a theme" from a common ancestral form.

The second line of evidence for human evolution is the fossil record. Culture-bearing creatures existed in the distant past that were physically quite distinct from present-day Homo sapiens. In an article in Christianity Today, Kornfield details the complex cultural traits of Neanderthal, including use of fire, and burial practices that are mirrored today in many cultures, and strongly suggest religious ceremony. Kornfield accepts Neanderthal's date
at about 40-70,000 years ago (Kornfield, 1973). Earlier fossil re mains found in China (loosly termed Homo erectus fossils) have been dated at about 200,000-400,000 years ago (Oakley 1964:238ff), and are in association with evidence of cultural achievements such as the use of fire, stone tools, and the dubious practice of cannibalism (Hoebel, 1958:154-155).

Position of Theology

Definition. For purposes of this paper we define theology as a human endeavor, explaining and ordaining facts about God and the supernatural. As Findlayson says, "There has been a gradual unfolding and formulation of the doctrine in the New Testament as the human mind applied itself to the material furnished in the divine revelation (Finlayson, 1963:9)."

Theology is concerned not only with the nature of God, but also with the nature of humans. The two great facts about humans in theology, the two facts that impinge upon scientific theory as well, are that humans are created by God, and that they are made in the image of God (and hence by implication are different from the animals). This uniqueness includes the fact that humans are spiritual beings, capable of responding to God. Certainly these two
doctrines are central to the biblical view of humanness.

Theology and human origins. One traditional theological posi tion treats creation, and especially the creation of human life, as a unique supernatural event. The creation cannot and must not be explained by recourse to known natural laws: God performed a miracle by fiat. Genesis is read as an account of creation as if seen through the eyes of a newspaper reporter present at the time. There is no need nor thought of naturalistic explanations. The Bible says God did it, and thus it is assumed the event had no relationship to "natural laws," nor could it be explained by them.

A second group of theologians would posit an "economy of miracles (Ramm, 1954)," If natural laws can provide an adequate explanation for an event, the hand of God is seen working through natural law, fortuitously bringing a coincidence of events together in one point of time. Only if no "natural" explanation appears possible or probable, would these theologians label an event a miracle.

Conflict between theology and science. Some' scientists have given the theory of evolution the status of a sufficient explanation for the meaning of all life. Sir Julian Huxley, a biologist, argued at one point that instead of understanding human beings as related to God, we must now seek human meanings in reference to the theory
of evolution. Of course this idea is not a scientific one, but a philosophical one, and theologians rightly reject this view because it elevates the theory of evolution to the status of an all encompassing philosophy of the meaning of life.

When theologians make statements about the natural world (e.g. the nature of humankind), statements that may be amenable to falsification through observation or experiment, they may come into conflict with anthropologists who hold scientific theories incompatible with these views.

Basic Tenets to be Accepted

W e may begin by specifying the elements that we can consider be "non-negociable" in our view of human origins.

1. The antiquity of humankind. Archaelogical and evidence, plus the method of radioactive dating, all lend e to support the fact that humans were on this planet in times. Carbon 14 dating has been used to directly date sample bone. The potassium-argon method has been used to date volcanic materials in the beds where human skeletal remains were found (Oakley, 1964:7). The ancient dates that these methods yield could be 10%, even 50% in error, and yet still place human origins well beyond the range of 10 - 20,000 years suggested by the proponents of the theory of recent human origins.

2. The fossils themselves exist. Also, most of the cultural mains purported to be in close association with these hunman fossils were indeed part of the repertoire of these fossil men. We can reject some of the interpretations and reconstructions of past events, but the fossils and their assoc iated cultural remains are to be aoccepted, including their approximate age.

The difficulty faced by theologians who believe that humans were created substantially identical to their present physical form. is that the fossil record has produced many forms that are substantially unlike present-day humans with respect to stature, characteristics of the teeth, and average brain case size, and yet these same forms are associated with cultural traits that must be labeled uniquely and undeniably human (the use of firepits, stone tools, ceremonial burial).

3. We must accept the Bible as authoritative. To assert that the Bible is an unreliable communication is also to cast doubt upon the central themes of scripture: namely person and work of Christ himself- and the meaning of his death and resurrection.

Two Possible Christian Positions

With these three tenets in mind, what is a valid position in regard to human origins?

A first position. The Genesis account is an historical narrative as if a newspaper reporter were viewing the event. This entails a belief that the creative events in Genesis describe God creating by fiat. This would not allow for far-reaching changes over time, rather would demand that God created the world, and much later humans, in an instant. Humankind is truly ancient, but changes we see in the fossil record are all natural changes that took place after the initial creation. The genealogies in Genesis are sequential, but are only selected points in the unbroken line 

Adam to Abraham.

In this view, the creative act of God spanned millions of years. The appearance of the earth and living forms happened or could have happened, in the range of time that geologists and paleon tologists propose. However, these forms were not the result of gradual evolutionarv develooment. but rather each was created an instant bv God

Most theologians who reject evolution as a general explanation do accept the idea of micro-evolution-the idea that evolution counts for small variations in closely-related life-forms, but account for the great variation that exists among broad families.

There are several problems with this view:

1. While anthropologists have emphasized the continuity in the fossil record, one holding this view is obliged to point out the abrupt discontinuities. With respect to human origins, one would be obliged to assert, for example, that A ustralopithicine fossils are only some extinct form of ape, while Homo erectus fossils are completely and wholly human. "Primitive" physical features of Homo erectus must then be discounted, and also cultural remains of Australopithicus that were vastly more sophisticated than those of any living non-human primate.

2. There is no essential difference between micro- and macroevolution. If one accepts that evolution occurs on a small scale, what observable evidence indicates that it cannot operate on a grander scale? What mechanisms set the upper limits on the operation of evolution?

3. Perhaps the most serious objection to this point of view is the biblical mention of Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, practicing plant and animal domestication. We have accepted the antiquity of man as a basic tenet, and yet the archaeological evidence of domestication stretches back to only about 10,000 B.C.

A second position. The Genesis record is not a strict "newspaper-reporting" chronology of events, but rather is meant to set humans in their proper place in the cosmos-to expose their ultimate meaning-to relate them, not to a mere string of naturalistic processes coinciding with known natural laws, but rather relate them to their creator.

According to this view, we learn the following from the Genesis account:

a. Humans were created by and are responsible to God.
b. Man and woman are essentially equal before God.
c. Humans are "stewards" of the rest of creation.
d. Human beings are unique in bearing the Imago Dei.

According to this view, Genesis does not force us to any particular scientific theory about human origins, but it does force us to a conclusion concerning the meaning of humanness, the relationship of humans to other humans, their corporate relationship to God, and their relationship to the cosmos. It does commit us to believing that humans are unique among the animals; specifically that they can disobey God, or respond to him in love and worship.

There is a possible objection to this view: If we cannot read Genesis 1-2 as chronological newspaper-reporting, it is argued, neither can we read other portions of Scripture as reliable historical accounts, and some great theological and doctrinal truths may be undermined. Significantly, St. Paul compares Christ to Adam, and if Adam disappears as an historical character, might not Christ also disappear, or "mythologize" before our eyes?

However, even the most literal interpreters of the biblical text are forced to draw a line between history and allegory; between enduring biblical principles and culturally or temporally limited teachings. As an example, how many fundamentalists practice footwashing in their churches today? Any biblical hermeneutic must deal with metaphors, similes, and figures of speech. Symbolism in Genesis need not detract from biblical authority (a parallel may be the American symbols of our country's founders,

flag, and constitution). In this view, Genesis allows for any one of several scientific theories of human origins. It does not allow for pseudo-scientific meanings for humankind that reject our grounding in God himself.

In conclusion, any valid theory of human origins cannot be piecemeal: it must adequately speak to the findings in the fossil record, the archaelogical record, to the observable facts concerning human and non-human life-forms today, and to the question of biblical truths. 


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Clark, W.E. LeGros. 1959. The Antecedents of Man. Harper and Row: New York.

Crimmins, Jerry. 1980. Illinois Bill Gives Bible Equal Time With Darwin Theories. Moody Monthly. May, 1980.

Finlayson, R.A. 1963. The Story of Theology. The Tyndale Press: London.

Hoebel, E. Adamson. 1958. Anthropology: The Study of Man.
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Kornfield, William J. 1973. The Early-Date Genesis Man. Christianity Today. June 8, 1973.

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